Irrfan in conversation with Team Box Office India about his upcoming film Hindi Medium and much more
In the trailer, we see a nice husband-and-wife equation, so…
(Cuts in) The casting was very, very crucial. It was my instinct that told me that I needed to have the right co-actor to explore this role. I needed somebody like, say, Deepak Dobriyal in this film. I insisted on him because the role required a unique kind of chemistry between Deepak and me. Likewise, I was looking for a particular name in Lunchbox. Before that film, I didn’t know NimratKaur, I had only seen a photograph of her and I felt it was crucial to cast her in that film. Our industry has only a few actor-stars and they are not dying to jump onto my bandwagon… and everyone is very busy. For this film it was crucial that the actress needed to have a sweet sense of humor.
I came across a video of her (Saba Qamar) in Pakistan, where she was talking about Aamir Khan, There was something very interesting about her and, for this role, we needed a chatpati ladki, you know, like Kangana (Ranaut). And if she gets her photocopy, we will keep working with that. Like, you do your original film with someone else and provide us with a photocopy of you and we will work. But there was no option like that with us. Priyanka is already busy there (Hollywood) and I wasn’t sure whether I could even approach her there or not.
When you say not many actors are ready to jump onto your bandwagon, what do you mean?
Like the story I am doing, whether they are prepared to get into that set-up. The set-up is very important for an actor, how big it is and what exactly the set-up is. And I had no idea if the set-up I had, was big enough for many.
The trailer of Hindi Medium suggests that the character of your wife is very dominating and you are dancing to her tune. Would you be okay with this in real life?
It’s a complicated equation between two people living together for such a long time. You have to find your own ways and formulas that work in your relationship. There are people who have the kind of temperament that makes light of things. Sometimes, you have to listen to things that are unpleasant. Some people know how to deflect those things while others can’t help but react to them.
In this movie, the wife complains and tells the husband that he is not the class she was searching for. If the husband doesn’t know how to deflect this, it would have become a problem, which would have escalated to a different level. But this man is not like that. He is very weird and thick-skinned and that made me want to do this role. No matter how much you make fun of this man, or how much you say he is a coward, and that you don’t know a single word of English, he will make light of it.
He is unaffected by these harsh words. Usually, if you taunt someone for being unable to speak English, they would get upset. But this person is free of all these things and simply believes that ‘I love you and I will simply give you a good time’. This is his philosophy.
Do you think a middle class man will relate to this character?
This is very important. There is relativity and there is a kind of aspirational value. I am not sure how many men will find this aspirational but most women will definitely get inspired. But I hope it is aspirational even for men because, for men, kachhimitti aur gilimitti bane rehna achha hai, so there is a possibility to mould and adapt to it. If you are unable to do it, it is not a good sign for any evolving human being. But it will definitely give a foresight for how to love and live life being a regular, middle class man. The only achievement is that he expanded his shop from a small one to a big one but married an upper class girl. So to fulfill her dreams, he does all he can materially and give her all that he can.
There is a song sung by AatifAslam which depicts a childhood love. Has this boy loved this girl since they were kids?
It is said that behind every successful man, there is a woman. Does this movie work on that premise?
I think that thought is very simplistic and we need to explore that from many different angles. After a point, some thoughts get dated and we need to explore them further.
What do you mean by ‘explore’?
There are many different angles. Men and women must understand that they are not complete in themselves. That’s just how nature is. When they come together, when they meet, both genders should realise that they should not talk about only their own pain. They should understand that unless there is harmony between the two, they are not complete. You will not experience what nature promises you. What nature is giving you is free and it’s magical. When two opposite genders come together, they fall in love and living harmoniously is a different kind of experience.
It’s like the Chinese Yin and Yang.
Yes, each gender has both the male and female inside us. When a man gets in touch with his feminine side, it changes his perspective; similarly, when a woman understands the masculine side inside her, there is a kind of growth and understanding that sets in.
Are you in touch with your feminine side?
I discovered that in my life. I think it happened because when kids are born, they change you and it’s phenomenal. Your personality changes in ways you would never have dreamt was possible. It’s like an atom bomb when it explodes. Something happens that is hard to explain. It changes you in many ways. I am not saying this is a formula. It may work completely against somebody else, but this is how it worked for me. There is a sense of giving and a sense of giving to somebody else. It sets in, which is much more harmonious.
You just mentioned that these things changed you as a person, but how did they impact you as an actor?
Yes, I am very fortunate that I am an actor. The most precious thing this job has given me and the most important lesson is to reflect on yourself and see yourself as other people do. If you could see yourself objectively… who you are and you start understanding yourself, and start criticising yourself, start appreciating yourself, start looking at it objectively as much as possible. That is the basic need of an actor. Unless he starts observing himself, he will not be able to look outside himself.
It’s all about your own complexes, your own way of looking at people guided by your own filters. You never see the bigger picture. That’s what acting has given me. There are so many other reasons why being an actor is precious. Like sharing your own experiences through stories and my experience becomes your experience, my fun becomes your fun, my trauma becomes your trauma.
There is a magic I discovered. It was not there in me when I was trying to become an actor. I was just a paisa kamao. But as I started exploring the profession, I realised certain things and that realisation came suddenly. I was not prepared and I was not thinking about it. Suddenly, raatke 11 bajke itne minute par ek thought aaya which penetrated you so deeply that you knew that information before but at that time the intensity with which it downloaded into your system and you became aware of it and it became a thing which you will carry to your grave.
At what phase in your career did that turning point come? Was it after doing a certain number of movies or did the turning point come after a particular movie?
It had nothing to do with movies. It was a certain experience which did that. While doing a movie, it’s a different process… you read a script, you shoot with other actors, and work with directors. But once it goes to the audience, the experience changes completely.
I remember so many movies that I had watched before their release, which had a different impact on me and how they grew after the movie released. Those things are there but audience suddenly brings them alive. There may be an aspect of a movie which you were not aware of and which was not so important at that time. So, it wasn’t a particular movie. It’s like you are in London to promote your movie and you are attending a party, and suddenly in the middle of a conversation, someone says something that strikes you.
I don’t want to think about it, it would be a stupid mistake for me to wonder what they are going to do. From the day the trailer launched, I could see their reaction, and I know the trailer doesn’t have even five per cent of what the movie has. It’s a much bigger experience. This is all I know. If one could tell what was going to happen, then uski dukan kabhi khali hi nahi hoti, he would keep doing this for the rest of his life.
From the trailers, it is obvious that the movie is a strong comment on the education system. What is your perception of our education system, given that you have school-going children?
I will address the other question which you haven’t asked. There is a message and comment in the subject and that was both a challenge and a limitation because there is always a tendency to get preachy. So, for me, it was a challenging to not become preachy while also not diluting the message.
Education, for me, is very important because we were not educated in an ideal way. I used to hate school and I don’t want my kids to go through that. I want them to be interested in their studies. They should feel engaged with it. They shouldn’t feel like it is forced upon them.
So I was looking for a school which had a practical way of teaching. For me, education is a way to explore oneself and expose oneself to possibilities that will nurture your personality. If education does not fulfill that function, then it is making you a tool to be used by somebody else. I don’t believe in that type of education.
The trailer has a few scenes which reflect the importance of English in our society. What are your comments on this?
When we went to school, we were told that we would learn to speak English and that we would learn it automatically. No one told us how that would happen. The English language is an international language and it increases the possibilities before those who know it. But if you don’t know the language, you should not be at least doubtful of the language you know and you should not assume that if you learn English, you will shine as a person. It is just the ability to speak that language, that’s it. Your thinking doesn’t change once you learn to speak English.
What kind of preparation and workshops did do you to get into this zone?
This is actually a very familiar zone. We have seen Delhi and ChandniChowk from our childhood. I didn’t have to prepare much for the character I had to play.
After working in Hollywood as well, what are the differences that you see between that industry and the Hindi film industry? If so, what are the changes you would like to bring to our industry?
I am fortunate to be a part of Hindi cinema. We had a very unique style of story telling during the ‘60s, which is when cinema focused on our own society. Also, there was a complexity in our story telling because it was coming from an insight into the power of storytelling. Directors were also passionate to tell these stories. When you have a passion to tell your stories, you tend to tell your story in a very layered manner, and that is where we are lacking. We don’t tell our stories in multi-layered ways, where the universal audience can connect with them.
Somebody told me that Raj Kapoor once need a Bhojpuri background score for his film and he had heard that there was a tabela where someone knew about the tunes he wanted to use in his film. Early one morning, he rushed to that place and found that person who knew those tunes.
When Guru Dutt needed a few angry songs, he met 10 writers and was still not satisfied. He was just not getting what he wanted. He was looking for a writer who had a lot of anger in him. Then someone mentioned Sahir’s (Ludhianvi) name and he wrote the song within 48 hours and it became a sensation. We have lost this.
Where you’ll survive today, is the series. And for series that kind of writing they are doing is unbelievable. After watching a movie you experience is over but a series don’t allow that experience to get over.
Today series have changed the definition of story telling. I think cinema will be redundant in a few years. And even if it takes a while for this to happen in India, cinema will be a different kind of experience because people will start watching it on mobile phones. I guess the new generation will take to it automatically. They don’t need my understanding.
The good thing about the Indian industry is that it is fortunate that the audience is hungry. Feed them a little and they will forgive everything. But if the industry does not have good enough stories to tell, the audience will go away. Also, this is not the first time where Hollywood is paralyzing the industry. They have paralyzed a lot of industries in the world.
You have won awards and you have such a great body of work. As an artiste, what is it that you crave to do now?
Lifetime achievement award. You always feel like your journey has just begun. And you don’t sense that your journey has already started. I feel I have learnt things pretty slowly and worked for so long and tried so hard to understand the craft and now I can finally play with it. Now I think I can share some interesting experiences with my audience. I seriously feel that.
From here on, with this new perspective, where do you see your career going?
I want to redefine so many things like story telling, commercialism and what is commercial cinema. And I want to redefine genres in the cinema, like love, revenge, action and horror. I want to redefine these again and again. I did The Lunchbox and Maqboolas I wanted to do a love story. And in Maqbool, I got an opportunity to redefine love. It wasn’t a story of ambition, of getting the throne, or becoming a king but for me my kingdom was Nimmi. It was a story of Maqbool, who has this helpless, intense attraction that he had to kill. And getting the throne was the only way to survive. Also, The Lunchbox worked worldwide because it had some kind of romance.
From this film, people will smile from the inside and will come out of the auditorium smiling. At the same time, your brain will be thinking many things.
Have you incorporated any personal experiences into this film?
Somewhere you relate to the character. And something which you don’t have and you like, those things which you want to live, those moments while doing the film. For example, the character I am playing is very stubborn and in real life, I am not that kind of person. And that is why this character is aspirational.